Goodbye, Haley Reinhart, curvaceous purveyor of the Janis Joplinesque rasp and Ella Fitzgeraldesque coo. You made kind-of, sort-of following this current (tenth) season of American Idol, the first I’ve watched since the David’s faced off three years ago, an enjoyable journey with a compelling narrative arc. Now you have left me with two country crooners who, from my lookout point, appear to have negative charisma and even less in the way of creative tendencies. They’re serviceable but… I mean… America, why?!?
You really still follow this show, Charles?!? This ten-year-old bloated behemoth of a talent competition? Well, yes and no, but to a point where I would have no shame saying, “Yes, yes I do, and there is no problem with that as long as you care about it for the right reasons.” See, I watch the performances on YouTube after the live airings because I cannot get Fox on the telly where I live, so, through this selectivity, I am spared having to watch just about everything except what I care about, which is the singing. Wednesday nights, at about two in the morning, as I’m collapsing into bed, I listen, one by one, to the performances, sans performance show context. If I like a song, if it takes my breath away (this distinction went to Casey five times this season, Haley four, and James probably twice) then I will listen multiple times.
Doing this, I have largely been spared from the (according to what I hear through the grapevine) hideous judges’ comments this season which have, apparently, from right to left: ruined the common phrase “In it to win it” for the American public through sheer and unnecessary overuse (Randy), created the cringe-worthy term “little goosies” to refer to the goosebumps one gets when listening to a good performance (J-Lo), and just generally abused the concept of logic and sequence in the English language (Steven Tyler). I am okay with this (the passing over of judge time, not their destruction of the moors of sensibility when critiquing and using English) because, while it may make me sound like another lemming, Simon Cowell was the only person whose feedback legitimately mattered because it varied based on the viability of the performances he heard, and his absence has left us a panel of cooing babies who prattle the same non-sensical catch phrases after just about every song. Undecided Americans have been on their own this tenth season if they hoped for any guidance from the judges, and I guess the votes have turned out accordingly.
For those who haven’t been watching (or who really don’t care but want to see me make fun of the show for a bit) the finale (airing next Tuesday) will consist of two sixteen year old country artists, Scotty McCreary and Lauren Alaina. It’s not that they are both not good singers. They both sing adeptly and occasionally movingly. It’s just that, collectively, they are as interesting as a brand new, shiny, plastic chair, if that chair had a country twang. Scotty sings low. He moves his eyebrows a lot in this creepy come-hither manner and holds the microphone like it’s a hybrid flute/sausage. He has, in an incredible feat, not sang a single non-country song in competition (except during Carole King week when he turned a Carole King song into a country song). Lauren, on the other hand, giggles a lot and sings… higher than Scotty. She wears dresses that sometimes look comically ridiculous on her, frets a lot about the appropriateness of her song choices because she is sixteen, shy and innocent, and sounds like Kelly Clarkson at her most banal and childish (you know the way she sounded on her first singles, but not the way she sounded during her weeks on the show where she actually won favor with the audience and judges, and definitely not how she sounds at all anymore). I have never listened to either of them sing a song competently and responded, “I have to hear that again!” Not once. It is unlikely that my ambivalence will transform into enthusiasm next week when one of these sweet teens is anointed king of the Idol mountain.
Not whining. Idol has long been at a point where I could take it or leave it. I could care less about the format and pageantry at this point. What matters is this: when I hear a good voice, I want to hear more of it. This season has had my ears perked, and they stayed focused on something interesting until, last night, the last interesting person was eliminated. (You can’t really argue this even if you like what the WonderCountryTeens do. They are not innovators by any stretch of the imagination.)
First Casey Abrams grabbed my attention. Listen to the above video starting at 35 seconds in, you’ll see why. Then Jacob Lusk, who stunned for a week or two, got me and then really turned me off. Then rocker James Durbin, who really looked like he was having fun out there and occasionally shared a true musical sensibility. Mostly it was all about Casey for me though. All that time, though, one singer who I had initially not cared a lick about burrowed her way into my consciousness and grew to be my favorite even after Casey had departed because, well, he doth growl too much. Hayley Reinhart, 11 weeks ago, yodeled her way through “Blue” by LeAnn Rimes and I was captivated. She never sounded like that again, which was fine, because every week, she put some captivating new twist on a totally different song from a different genre and made it sound awesome. The judges were never kind to her while they coddled everyone else, and so she became viewed as a petulant brat for rolling her eyes at their *ahem* “critiques.” But each week, it was Haley who turned in the best performance, something which became increasingly shocking, seeing as she was storming from the very very back of the pack and was barely skirting elimination. That trend included this past week, where I would say she had the two best performances by a long shot and seemed destined to do the unthinkable; go in ten weeks from unpopular also-ran to beloved finalist. Do I even need to get to the cliché part where these performances did not lead to her continuing, and how this is disappointing… Yeah, I’ll skip it.
Competition shows can be silly, and also difficult to follow. Either you don’t get invested in them, which is disappointing in its own way, or you do and you get let down. Rarely does one pay-off emotionally from beginning to end (hey there, Sing-Off!) That does not preclude them form being compelling or captivating. They can be captivating because of people like Haley, who everyone thought would be gone 10 weeks ago, but who underdogged her way to what appeared to be the forefront of this competition. She might have too much rasp in her voice, too much overt sexuality, a bit too much sass, yeah, fine. And? She was interesting every step of the way, and I lament seeing her go because, really I wanted three more moving performances from her so I could hear a voice like hers on national TV for one more week. Didn’t happen. C’est la vie. Sign her to a record deal, please?
Warning as Update: This may all, of course, be poppycock. Upon further psychoanalysis, claiming I don’t like the show only after the last contestant I cared about has been cast off may simply be a defense mechanism. I hadn’t watched this show in three years (before this cycle), but perhaps some part of me still cares who wins because the competition aspect still matters. At the same time, renouncing something because we discover how much it can hurt us on any given day is part of the process of discovering our own popular culture identity, so I guess, take my pronouncements with a grain of salt. Both sides of the coin (the side that scoffs at caring, and the side that cares) are true to some extent not just with reality competitions but with comic book movies, single-camera sitcoms and graphic novels any time they build us up and let us down, and navigating the two poles for an audience that likely cares very little about this particular singing competition (or movie, or show, or novel) at this juncture can be difficult and has to deal with constantly changing opinions. All the same, my disappointment at seeing Haley, my underdog and my favorite singer, silenced is real, no matter how pathetic or profound that may be. That’s what I’ve discovered today.